2014 NFL Free-Agent Signings: Early Role Projections and Stat Predictions

Andrew GardaFeatured ColumnistMarch 15, 2014

2014 NFL Free-Agent Signings: Early Role Projections and Stat Predictions

0 of 21

    Bill Feig/Associated Press

    The first week of free agency has wrapped up, and it was certainly everything we were promised.

    Sudden cuts, surprise signings and drama by the bucketful were all over this week’s news as players and teams have begun to try and fix their teams.

    Today we’re recapping some of the bigger signings from the week, including where they’ll fit on their new teams and what they might be able to produce.

    The players we’ve selected stand out for one or more of several reasons.

    Some are on the list because they were among the best of their position group. Others were surprising additions who got big money. Of course, there are some who are both.

    Some of these choices were just shrewd moves by the teams involved.

    To keep things simple, we did not include teams and players who were together last season and just re-signed.

    So you won't see Jerome Simpson, Michael Bennett, Darren McFadden or Eugene Monroe, as they stayed home in the end.

    So, let’s take a look at what happened in free agency this past week and figure out what it means and why.

     

    *All statistics are drawn from NFL.com or ESPN.com unless otherwise noted.

Safety Jairus Byrd to the New Orleans Saints

1 of 21

    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    No signing was more surprising than this one. As Will Brinson of CBSSports.com says in his report on the signing, the Saints were believed to be just $2.4 million under the cap. We knew running back Darren Sproles and his remaining year and $3.5 million contract was either going to be traded or cut at some point, but that’s still not leaving tons of room.

    Enter the contract details, which show a very backloaded contract, according to Spotrac.com. While Byrd gets $18.3 million guaranteed, much of that is a signing bonus spread over years plus some roster bonus.

    A lot of the base salary hits in 2016—so it will be interesting to see how that contract plays out and when it gets renegotiated.

    How does Byrd fit? Well, to quote Brinson: It’s going to be “ridiculous.” Adding Byrd to Kenny Vaccaro is going to give the Saints one of the best safety duos in the NFL.

    Byrd is going to get the freedom to move around and play some aggressive, ball-hawk football, as defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s 3-4 front blitzes with impunity. The pressure on the quarterback will allow Byrd to roam and play “center fielder” at free safety.

    Byrd will also have plenty of chances to hammer people as they cross the middle, so we should see his tackles get back up to their 2010/2011 numbers.

    I would expect to see between five and seven interceptions with somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 to 60 tackles—which was around what Malcolm Jenkins used to total for the Saints in the same position.

Cornerback Alterraun Verner to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2 of 21

    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Losing Darrelle Revis is one of those things which—well you just don’t replace a guy like that, at least not easily.

    Just ask the New York Jets.

    However, adding Alterraun Verner to replace him is a good start. Of course, as NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling pointed out when he relayed NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport’s report that the deal had happened, they made sure Verner was signed before they dumped Revis.

    While Verner isn’t Revis, he might be a better fit than the former Buc and Jet in Lovie Smith’s Cover 2 defense. The Buccaneers won’t ask him to play press-man coverage a ton—which is what Revis does well and was not asked to do enough in Tampa—and will likely have safety help over the top to help protect against a lack of elite speed.

    What he does have are great instincts to get to where he needs to be ahead of a pass, good ball skills and a willingness to hit. In a defense which added some great pieces this week (more on next slide), Verner could see a lot more picks in Smith’s scheme.

    Last season, Verner allowed a quarterback rating of just 55.8 in his direction, with five interceptions compared to allowing only a pair of touchdowns.

    I expect him to have similar success this season. Perhaps we’ll see a creep up in the quarterback ratings against, given he will see Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton just within his division. But the 80.3 he allowed in 2012 is still solid, so a number there or a little below would be good.

    He’ll probably see around the same interceptions as last year as well and between 40-50 tackles.

Defensive End Michael Johnson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

3 of 21

    John Grieshop/Getty Images

    After Michael Bennett and Greg Hardy returning to their respective teams, Michael Johnson was by far the biggest and best defensive end still available.

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers wasted no time in signing him to a five-year, $43.75 million contract with $24 million guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Josina Anderson.

    Johnson was a bit inconsistent in Cincinnati; when he was on, Johnson was nigh unstoppable. Last season saw a slight change in his role as then-defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer didn’t send him after the quarterback quite as much as in 2012, when he had 11.5 sacks.

    We should see a return to those 2012 numbers, as his new head coach, Lovie Smith, will send him after the quarterback quite often.

    Offensive lines will have a heck of a time keying in on anyone player in the defensive front.

    If they block Johnson, what about Gerald McCoy at defensive tackle or Akeem Spence? If they shift to cover tackle as well, you have Lavonte David coming off the weak side.

    There is a lot of pressure coming off that defensive front, and with Alterraun Verner covering receivers you might see a lot of turnovers due to pressure.

    In fact, there are so many players here who could blow up, that might hurt Johnson’s numbers a bit.

    However, I like optimism, so let’s call for that return to the 2012 numbers with about 50-60 tackles, 10 sacks and his fourth straight year with an interception.

Safety T.J. Ward to the Denver Broncos

4 of 21

    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    In the first of three very big moves to shore up their defense, the Denver Broncos jumped all over T.J. Ward, as reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Tuesday. According to Mike Klis of The Denver Post, the contract was for four years, $23 million with $14 million guaranteed.

    They say those who ignore history (especially their own) are doomed to repeat it.

    One thing which was clear with all three of the free-agent signings for the Broncos is that what they learned in the Super Bowl is this: A tough, nasty defense wins games.

    Ward is a very tough safety who is an exceptional tackler and very physical. The attitude he brings to the secondary is something they sorely lacked last season, and when in the box, Ward will hammer anyone who crosses his path.

    While Ward totaled 112 tackles last season, which seems a tad high, I’d expect that total to be a little lower—though his solo tackles will probably remain in the 70-60 range.

    And you can expect receivers to be as leery crossing the middle of the field with Ward there as Demaryius Thomas was after Seattle’s Kam Chancellor hammered him in the Super Bowl.

     

Cornerback Aqib Talib to the Denver Broncos

5 of 21

    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Another of Denver’s early moves was to address the cornerback situation. Chris Harris is coming off an injury, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is a free agent and Champ Bailey was a pre-free-agency cut—so the Broncos have issues.

    Well, make that had.

    The Broncos addressed the position by adding former New England Patriot cornerback Aqib Talib, as reported by ESPN.com. The Denver Post’s Mike Klis reported Tuesday that the contract is a six-year, $57 million deal, and looking at Spotrac.com, there’s $26 million in guaranteed money and a $5 million signing bonus spread across five years.

    Conceivably, the Broncos could cut bait after a year, as the guaranteed money for 2015 and 2016 are guaranteed for injury only, according to USA Today’s Tom Pelissero. If they cut him, he doesn’t get it.

    As for football, this is all about bringing toughness and aggressiveness to the defense as a whole and the secondary specifically, just like the signing of T.J. Ward.

    Talib is a solid corner with some health issues, but the Broncos are counting on him to show up for more than the 12.8 games a season he’s averaged in his career so far. While not quite a top echelon cover corner, Talib does very well in press-man and is not shy about making his presence known to those he’s covering.

    He plays very physically, something which can throw receivers and even tight ends off their game. Talib grinds guys down—just ask New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham, who he held without a catch, though both players left the game early.

    Which brings us back to his injury history.

    Talib’s impact might be hampered by the constant missed games. While the cornerback claims he never had a hip injury last year, as relayed by Kevin Patra of NFL.com, he still missed games. That it was a quad injury, as reported by Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com, rather than a hip injury doesn’t take away from the fact that injuries overall are a consistent issue.

    He’s been knocked out of the last two AFC Championship Games (both of which the Patriots lost) and has yet to play a complete season.

    So while I feel he’ll have a great impact on the defense, his overall numbers are likely to be mitigated by missed games.

    I expect him to continue to hover around 40 or so total tackles as well as two or three interceptions.

    Oh, and probably about 20 or 30 headaches for receivers.

Defensive End DeMarcus Ware to the Denver Broncos

6 of 21

    LM Otero/Associated Press

    It didn’t take long for former Dallas Cowboy defensive end DeMarcus Ware to find a new home, as ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported on Wednesday that the Denver Broncos had signed him to a three-year, $30 million contract.

    Ware had a down year last year, but that was due to missing three games with an injury—the first time he’s missed any games in his career—and lingering issues which led to his absence.

    The Cowboys thought teams would look at the age (31) and slip in production and write Ware off, but the Broncos were smarter than that.

    Ware will line up on the right side of the defensive line across from Derek Wolfe, with Sylvester Williams and Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton between them.

    Oh, and Von Miller should play a full season at strong-side linebacker with no suspension to shorten it. He might be limited early on, as he is coming off a Week 16 ACL injury, but he’ll likely be playing. Danny Trevathan stays on the weak side as well.

    This could be a scary front seven and coupled with the secondary, one of the better defensive units in the NFL.

    In terms of production, expect a bounce-back year from Ware—conservatively in the neighborhood of his 2012 numbers—10-12 sacks, 50-60 total tackles and a metric ton of quarterback pressures.

Running Back Rashad Jennings to the New York Giants

7 of 21

    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    This is notable in part because the running back market is pretty much dead.

    The New York Giants had a lot of issues last season, one of which was an inconsistent backfield. Injuries and underwhelming play plagued the ground game, which only added to the woes of the passing offense and quarterback Eli Manning.

    As reported by NJ.com’s Connor Orr, the Giants signed Rashad Jennings to a four-year, $14 million contract with about $3 million guaranteed.

    With very little movement on the running back market—pre-free-agency top-rated backs Maurice Jones-Drew and Ben Tate were still unsigned as of Friday—Jennings is a smart signing by the Giants, who get him at a reasonable rate for a long time.

    Jennings sat behind Jones-Drew in Jacksonville for three years but was merely average when he was asked to step in for the lead back. However, last season saw him explode in Oakland, as incumbent Darren McFadden was again hurt.

    In 15 games, Jennings carried the ball 163 times for 733 yards and six touchdowns. His yards-per-carry average was a very solid 4.5, and he added 36 catches for 292 receiving yards.

    David Wilson’s neck injury should be healed in time for camp, but he struggled to hold onto the ball and looked pretty bad before his injury. Peyton Hillis is just depth, and Andre Brown—the loan successful back last year—is likely gone in free agency.

    Expect Jennings to get the lead back spot going into next season.

    His production is a bit hard to judge because the Giants are still fixing what was one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL last season. They added guard Geoff Schwartz (more on that in a bit) but still have a ton of questions along the rest of the line.

    How that plays out and how Manning and the passing offense bounces back will dramatically impact Jenning’s production.

    Then again, Oakland wasn’t exactly a well-oiled offensive powerhouse.

    If the offensive line gets straightened out, Jennings will get a lot of carries, though the overall total of run plays might not be tremendous.

    New offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo spent eight years in Green Bay with the Packers. Despite what you may think, the Packers will run the ball with a solid lead back (please see Lacy, Eddie for proof), but they will always worry about the pass more.

    Jennings is a good pass-blocker, a good receiver and a reliable ball-carrier—all things McAdoo has stressed as vital for his backs. So don’t be shocked if he almost never comes off the field.

    So he’ll have steady opportunities—we just don’t quite know the quality of them.

    I’ll go out on a limb here and say he puts together a season much like Lacy did for the Packers last year—keeping in mind that McAdoo was not the offensive coordinator but will be influenced by the scheme he coached in—and expect Jennings to top 1,100 yards with around 10 touchdowns and another 30 or so catches for 300 or so yards.

Guard Geoff Schwartz to the New York Giants

8 of 21

    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    When your offensive line plays like the New York Giants line did in 2013, things are bound to change.

    Adding Geoff Schwartz, as reported by Kim Jones of NFL.com and WFAN New York, is one of the most underrated moves in the first week of free agency.

    I first started watching Schwartz closely when he was with the Minnesota Vikings, during Adrian Peterson’s insane return from knee injury. Schwartz is a very reliable player who can move to various spots on the line—including tackle—and perform well.

    The Giants are desperate for interior line help, and having someone who can step in at right tackle is great as well. It will be interesting to see how the positioning plays out in camp—we could see second-year tackle Justin Pugh move to the left side to replace a shaky Will Beatty, with either Schwartz or Chris Snee kicking over to right tackle.

    Or the Giants could shift someone else over to either tackle and keep both Snee and Schwartz inside.

    However they use him, the Giants made a huge upgrade on their offensive line, which should make both quarterback Eli Manning and new running back Rashad Jennings really happy.

Cornerback Darrelle Revis to the New England Patriots

9 of 21

    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    I hope I didn't bury the lede too much.

    When you lose Aqib Talib but gain Darrelle Revis it’s hard not to think you came out ahead.

    The New England Patriots sure think they did when they signed him hours after he was cut by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as reported by Adam Schefter of ESPN.

    While the two are very different cornerbacks, Revis’ game is just on another level. Assuming he continues to improve as he comes back from his 2012 ACL injury, Revis’ ability to shut down an entire side of the field is something very few corners can match.

    It will be interesting to see how they use him exactly, but expect the Patriots to let Revis do what he does—take on the top receiver on the other team in press-man and shut him down.

    When you look at the receivers the Patriots face this year, a top cornerback was a critical need.

    For giggles, I’ve compiled a list:

    A.J. Green, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Demaryius Thomas, Calvin Johnson, Golden Tate, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings, Keenan Allen, Dwayne Bowe, T.Y. Hilton, Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks, Mike Wallace, Stevie Johnson and Eric Decker.

    That list is subject to change due to free agency and the NFL draft, and it has some guys who are not the No. 1 on their team.

    For example, either Wayne or Hilton will be the primary, but we can’t be sure which yet. Plus, you can now add Nicks in the mix, though he will more than likely be the No. 2 at best.

    And it’s unlikely that Revis will cover Golden Tate, but considering they already have to cover Johnson, it’s worth pointing out that if they didn’t have Revis to take Johnson, the Patriots would have a lot of problems covering both receivers.

    With Revis, the Patriots can just have one guy on Johnson. Without him they'd use two or more, as most teams do.

    Revis allows the defense to expend less energy worrying about at least one wide receiver and in some cases more than one.

    The ripple effect being that the defensive front will have a little more time to get at the quarterback, who will have a harder time going to his top target.

    Revis’ numbers should look about what they usually look like (even in a “down” 2013) with somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 tackles, four or five interceptions, a mid-50s completion percentage against and allowing around four or five touchdowns.

Defensive End Lamarr Houston to the Chicago Bears

10 of 21

    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    The Chicago Bears really wanted Michael Bennett, but the Seattle Seahawks put the kibosh on that, so the Bears went with their second choice, which, in this case, wasn’t half bad.

    Signing Lamarr Houston, as reported by NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport and relayed by NFL.com’s Marc Sessler, gives the Bears a versatile pass-rusher who will allow defensive coordinator Mel Tucker to make adjustments to scheme in a variety of ways.

    Houston was the No. 11 best 4-3 defensive end according to Pro Football Focus (subscription link), and while he isn’t likely to ever generate a ton of sacks, he does bring pressure.

    With Willie Young (our next topic) also added across from Houston, the Bears have the basis of a solid pass rush—especially if Lance Briggs is healthy and Shea McClellin can finally start producing (though you wonder if Tucker will finally move him to linebacker, though he was more of a 3-4 linebacker in college).

    Again, I don’t expect Houston to generate double-digit sacks, but another year of around six or so seems right, along with a higher total of tackles, probably in the neighborhood of 80 or so.

    And you can expect a ton of quarterback hurries as well, which was what made the Bears defense so good just a few years ago. More hurries equals more mistakes by the quarterback.

     

Defensive End Willie Young to the Chicago Bears

11 of 21

    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Along with Lamarr Houston, the Chicago Bears also wrapped up former Detroit Lion Willie Young, as reported by USA Today’s Tom Pelissero.

    Young was only a starter for one year in Detroit and only generated six sacks over the whole of his career, but last season saw him generate 48 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus, and while many will forget this, pressure is a type of production.

    He and Houston may not get sacks, but they will force quarterbacks to rush throws, and rushed throws increase the likelihood of a mistake.

    I’d expect a slight uptick in sacks from Young, though not much—just maybe up to five or six sacks. His tackle total will go up as well, probably to somewhere in the ballpark of 60 or so.

    And, more importantly, he'll have plenty more of those quarterback hurries, which are really the most important aspect of what he brings to the table.

Tackle Branden Albert to the Miami Dolphins

12 of 21

    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    What do you do when your team is coming off a season where the offensive line literally tore itself apart, then preceded to allow the quarterback to get sacked a league-high 58 times and hit another 100 times?

    Now, not all of that was on the line—quarterback Ryan Tannehill has a tendency to hold the ball too long—but some was. Besides, having lost both Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito, the Dolphins need to replace players anyway.

    Bringing in Branden Albert to take over left tackle, as reported by NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport (relayed by NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal), solidifies the line at a position that, even before the drama last season, was a question mark.

    Albert may be getting on in years, but he is still more than capable of holding the left side of the line. While he will face some tough pass-rushers in the AFC East, he’s seen it before when he was with the Kansas City Chiefs.

    While the offensive line needs even more help, this was an outstanding first step.

Tackle Jared Veldheer to the Arizona Cardinals

13 of 21

    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Like the Miami Dolphins, the Arizona Cardinals entered free agency needing to address the offensive line.

    They did so by signing Jared Veldheer to a five-year, $37.5 million contract, as reported by Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com.

    Veldheer isn’t a household name, but that just means he’s under the radar of most fans. You’ll know him soon though, as he saves what Rosenthal correctly calls the “worst left tackle situation in the entire NFL.”

    That’s not even remotely hyperbole.

    Veldheer is young and potentially has some of the best years of his career still to come, is outstanding in pass protection and very solid blocking for the run as well.

    With the return of second-year guard Jonathan Cooper, the left side of the Cardinals line is going to be rock solid. That will help quarterback Carson Palmer to have time to deliver the ball—which we saw he can still do when he has time—and running backs Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor to finally have some holes worth running through.

     

Wide Receiver Golden Tate to the Detroit Lions

14 of 21

    Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

    For the longest time, the Detroit Lions have been trying to find a complementary receiver to take advantage of the defensive attention Calvin Johnson gets. And not just a guy either—they’re looking for someone who can actually be a big threat.

    They think they might have finally found that guy when they signed Golden Tate to a five-year deal on Wednesday, as reported by ESPN.com’s Michael Rothstein.

    The contract, reported to be for $31 million with $13.25 million guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Josina Anderson, will find him a free agent in 2019, one year before Johnson.

    Tate tended to line up on the outside in Seattle, but as Justin Rogers of MLive.com reports, he expects to move around a lot more. With the incredible run-after-the-catch skills, Tate will be much more effective out of the slot, especially with an opposing secondary focusing more on Johnson.

    On top of that, defenses need to pay attention to Reggie Bush or Joique Bell as well.

    Don’t be shocked if Tate easily breaks 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2014.

     

Wide Receiver Eric Decker to the New York Jets

15 of 21

    Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

    To the relief of New York Jets fans, the team signed wide receiver Eric Decker after the first two days of free agency passed with barely a whisper from Florham Park.

    As reported by Chris Wesseling of NFL.com, Decker and the team signed a five-year, $36.25 million contract with $15 million in guaranteed money.

    It’s incredibly hard to get a firm grasp of what to expect from Decker for many reasons.

    First, Geno Smith is an unproven quarterback who struggled much of the season, though he improved as the season went on. Any quarterback is a step down from a future Hall of Famer like Peyton Manning, but even though Smith could prove to be a very good starter, this is more akin to a stumble down a flight of stairs than a step down.

    Can Decker produce? Well, while we can focus on the back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with Manning heaving the ball, we should also remember he caught eight touchdowns and had over 600 yards with Tim Tebow throwing him the ball.

    So while he will definitely see a dip in production, it might not be as horrible as many think.

    We also should consider that New York is not likely to be done yet. The Jets are very likely to add another free-agent receiver, which will further change his production and potentially his role. Ditto for any addition of a rookie in the upcoming draft.

    So let’s talk about what we do know about him and what he can do.

    Decker lacks elite speed but is a tough receiver who can come down with contested balls by outmuscling defenders. That makes him a solid red-zone target—something the Jets have lacked for several years.

    With Jeremy Kerley mostly in the slot (though with all the injuries, he has shown he can do more), Decker is probably destined more for a role as the “split end” or “X” receiver—a guy normally farthest from the center on his side of the field and often on the opposite side of the field from the tight end.

    That means while he will occasionally be asked to go vertical, he’s going to have to get off the jam at the line and could be asked to do some shorter routes as well.

    Pro Football Focus tweeted out two charts from some of the material it provides for teams which is worth looking at.

    First, it tweeted out a route breakdown for Decker. The chart shows that, out of 87 catches (and 135 targets), Decker was thrown at most on “Go” routes, followed by “Out” routes.

    Next, we have Geno Smith’s numbers by route. While Smith threw the ball most on “Hitch” routes, he spread the ball pretty evenly among multiple routes.

    He threw specifically to the “Out” route 39 times, completing 20 of those throws or 51.3 percent of them. The completed passes accounted for 278 yards and two touchdowns but also three interceptions.

    Smith threw even more often to the receiver on a “Go” route—41 times, his second-highest total after the “Hitch” route. Unfortunately he only completed just 36.6 percent, though he totaled 418 yards (101 after the catch) and six touchdowns. He also threw six interceptions on those plays.

    What does this all mean aside from Pro Football Focus teasing us with stats it won’t normally release?

    Well, it means Smith and Decker could hook up for quite a few passes, as routes that Decker runs well, Smith tended to throw to.

    Again, depending on who else gets pulled into this offense, Decker could see an awful lot of work come his way.

    I could absolutely see him grabbing 60-70 balls, totaling somewhere between 700-800 yards and seven or eight touchdowns.

    It’s a guess, though, until we see more of the offense come together.

Defensive End Tyson Jackson to the Atlanta Falcons

16 of 21

    Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

    There has been talk that perhaps the Atlanta Falcons might like to move up to grab South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.

    That may still remain the case, as you will see in a minute, but perhaps not as big a need as before.

    Adding Tyson Jackson doesn’t eliminate the need for a defensive end but makes it easier to decide not to repeat the costly move up from a few years back when the Falcons snagged Julio Jones.

    As NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported, Jackson signed a five-year, $25 million contract this week, $9.5 million of which is guaranteed according to Spotrac.com.

    The Falcons run defense was abysmal last season, and that is where Jackson’s biggest strength lies. His size and strength helps him tackle well, and he can fill up gaps really effectively. Jackson also has good quickness going side-to-side and can follow a player all along the line of scrimmage.

    What he doesn’t do incredibly well—and this is what could make Clowney attractive still—is rush the passer. He was a solid 3-4 defensive end in Kansas City but never one to hound a quarterback.

    That might be the role he’ll have in Atlanta, because while the Falcons have run a 4-3 base, receiver Roddy White tweeted that the team is changing to a 3-4.

    Will this actually happen? It’s hard to say. But between the Jackson signing and bringing in Paul Soliai—who Gregg Rosenthal describes in a piece at NFL.com as “the rarest of NFL commodities: a 3-4 nose tackle”—it seems likely.

    In any event, don’t expect a ton of sacks, as he’s got a career total of seven. But he will have at least a huge role in stopping the run. So while his pressures and sacks will be low, you might see a very high tackle count by the end of the season.

Inside Linebacker Karlos Dansby to the Cleveland Browns

17 of 21

    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    After losing D’Qwell Jackson in free agency, the Browns moved to fill the hole at linebacker with Karlos Dansby, as reported by ESPN.com.

    Last season, Dansby had his best season as an inside linebacker, with career highs in solo tackles (112) and interceptions (four), and was a huge reason why the Arizona Cardinals defense was as good as it was.

    While Jackson is good (and a tad younger—Dansby turns 33 this year, while Jackson will turn 31), Dansby is much better. And not only in terms of statistics.

    Dansby is a great leader on and off the field and a tremendously versatile player—something new head coach Mike Pettine will value.

    For two years in a row, Dansby has put up 100-plus tackles—I don’t see any reason why he doesn’t make it three in a row this year.

Safety Donte Whitner to the Cleveland Browns

18 of 21

    Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

    Along with replacing D’Qwell Jackson, the Cleveland Browns found themselves having to find a new safety with T.J. Ward heading to Denver.

    So, as reported by Cleveland.com’s Mary Kay Cabot, they signed former San Francisco 49er Donte Whitner to replace Ward.

    A two-time Pro Bowler known for some savage (and borderline legal these days) hits on receivers and running backs, Whitner is also an Ohio native who is looking forward to playing “back home.”

    Whitner is going to not only replace Ward on the field, but he will join Dansby in trying to bring some veteran leadership to the defense as well.

    Expect Whitner to spend a lot of time in run defense and clocking receivers going across the middle. He’ll make his presence felt in both areas, but only the tackles will register in the stats column.

    The trepidation receivers feel crossing the middle is something that isn’t readily obvious on the stats sheet.

    Interesting side note: The Browns are paying Whitner more money ($28 million, $13 guaranteed) than the Denver Broncos are paying T.J. Ward ($22 million, $13.5 guaranteed).

    Both deals are four years—one wonders where the disconnect was. Did Ward merely want to play for a contender? Or is there something about him Cleveland really wasn’t hot on?

    Food for thought.

Wide Receiver Steve Smith to the Baltimore Ravens

19 of 21

    Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

    Another veteran cut in the name of cap space, former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith didn't have to wait all that long for an offer sheet.

    As reported by ESPN.com, Smith joined the Baltimore Ravens for a three-year deal late Friday.

    It will be fun to see how he fits in here, as Smith has always been the de facto No. 1 in Carolina. Now he will be behind Torrey Smith—but that may not be a bad thing.

    Torrey Smith garners all sorts of attention, so Steve Smith should be able to find some room to move—not unlike what Anquan Boldin was able to achieve during the Ravens' Super Bowl season.

    Boldin was sorely missed last year, so filling that void will go a long way toward helping this offense get back on track.

    We'll probably see similar numbers to what the former Panther had last year—around 60-70 passes for 700-800 yards. The big question will be touchdowns—Steve Smith only had four last year, so I expect things will improve a little in that area, perhaps bumping up to a whopping six or seven.

     

Safety Malcolm Jenkins to the Philadelphia Eagles

20 of 21

    Al Bello/Getty Images

    The Philadelphia Eagles have had issues at safety for a long time.

    When they signed Malcolm Jenkins—to a three-year, $16.25 million contract with $8 million guaranteed per ESPN’s Adam Schefter—they hoped things might finally settle down.

    The problem is that Jenkins has talent but can’t seem to be consistent.

    Last season looked like it would be a big one for him, as he initially was a great fit in Rob Ryan’s defense. But Jenkins cooled off massively, and his production took a dive.

    So much so that he was replaced by Jairus Byrd for quite a bit of cash.

    Jenkins has shown flashes of exceptional skill in coverage and tackling but doesn’t do it consistently, so while he’ll have a few big plays every year, he disappears too much.

    Originally a cornerback, Jenkins was moved to safety but never quite seemed to fit there either.

    Still, his contract is reasonable, and he’s better than anything the Eagles had before. Sure, that’s damning with faint praise, but it’s also reality.

    If Jenkins can be more consistent, if Chip Kelly and his staff can find a way for him to put it all together this year, Jenkins has the raw talent to be a fantastic safety.

    As it stands, we’ll probably believe it only when we see it and see it sustained.

    We should see his overall numbers pop back up in Philly. His tackles should creep back up to the mid- to high 70s, and if the front seven can bring pressure, you might see a couple more interceptions.

Odds and Ends

21 of 21

    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    The following guys are worth mentioning briefly, but I didn't think they deserved a whole slide to themselves.

    Plus, at this point, you may be going blind from reading.

     

    Cornerback Brandon Browner, New England Patriots

    The Patriots continued to shore up their secondary for the coming season by adding Brandon Browner, as reported by NFL.com's Chris Wesseling. Browner is suspended for the first four games of the year, but once he's back the secondary gets really scary. He and Darrelle Revis will make life terrible for opposing offenses.

     

    Tackle Michael Oher, Tennessee Titans

    Wesseling also relayed NFL Network's Ian Rapoport's report that the Tennessee Titans have reached an agreement with tackle Michael Oher. You can make the argument that a four-year, $20 million contract is a tad steep for Oher, who has never lived up to the hype he had coming into the league.

    But the Titans are desperate for help on the offensive line, and Oher should upgrade the right side.

     

    Wide Receiver Hakeem Nicks, Indianapolis Colts

    The assumption was that the Carolina Panthers were the front-runners here, but as Rapoport and Wesseling report (again), the Indianapolis Colts got the deal done first. Nicks played beyond poorly last season, but the Colts are taking a chance that the former New York Giant can turn it back on. Having Andrew Luck throw the ball, with Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton drawing coverage, should help.

     

    Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, Minnesota Vikings

    The Minnesota Vikings picked up Xavier Rhodes in the first round of last year's draft but didn't have an answer for the other side of the field.

    The acquisition of Captain Munnerlyn—once again as reported by Rapoport but relayed by Marc Sessler on NFL.com—could change that. Munnerlyn is a bit undersized but is a hard-hitting corner who can cover. Over his career he's turned four of his interceptions into pick-sixes.

     

    Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him @andrew_garda on Twitter.